Alan of Lille Essay - Critical Essays

Alan of Lille


Alan of Lille c. 1117-c. 1202-03

(Also known as Alanus de Insulis and Alain de Lille) Flemish theologian and poet.

Famous during his lifetime as a preacher, scholar, philosopher, speculative theologian, and author, Alan of Lille is best-remembered for his epic allegorical poems De Planctu Naturae (The Complaint of Nature), and Anticlaudianus de Antirufino. Both works depict cosmic spiritual journeys in quest of divine vision and human perfection, and their fundamental argument is that, while the understanding of Nature and the pursuit of the liberal arts may provide the means for arriving at the threshold of divine knowledge, they are not proper ends in themselves. In both form or content these allegories are believed to have served as models for later medieval masterpieces like the chivalric romances of Chrétien de Troyes, Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose, Dante's Divine Comedy, and Chaucer's House of Fame.

Biographical Information

Much of what is known about Alan's life is conjecture, construed from a variety of sources. Until 1960 it was assumed that Alan had been born around 1128; however, in 1960, Marcel Lebeau, a monk of the Citeaux Abbey, near Dijon, France, where Alan resided in his last years, uncovered Alan's grave. His body was exhumed, and forensic experts determined he died at the age of eighty-six, setting the date of his birth in 1116 or 1117. Scholars derive the date of Alan's death, based on references by the thirteenth-century chronicler Alberic de Trois-Fontaines and the seventeenth-century chronicler Charlemont, as somewhere between April 14, 1202 and April 5, 1203. An addendum to his epitaph, probably originating in the sixteenth century, giving his death date as 1194 has since been discredited. Evidence also suggests he was born at Lille in Flanders, and that he went to the school of St. Peter there, arriving to study in Paris around 1136, probably with Gilbert of Poitiers. Alan may have heard Thierry of Chartres, a Platonist, lecture in Paris and may have studied with him at Chartres. Although it is unknown if Alan had any contact with Platonist scholastic theologian Bernardus Silvestris, it seems reasonable to assume that he read his works. The influence of Silvestris on Alan is evidenced by the frequency with which Alan quoted from Bernardus's De Universitate Mundi in his own writing. It is believed that after he completed his studies, Alan taught in Paris, probably as the head of an ecclesiastical school. Further, the warm dedication of his tract against heretics to William VIII of Montpellier suggests he also lived and wrote for a time in Montpellier. Toward the end of his life Alan entered the monastery at Citeaux to make spiritual preparation for death.

Major Works

Although he wrote several important and influential works on the art of preaching, on teaching rhetoric, and on several other topics related to Christian theology, Alan's two allegorical poems are considered his major achievement. De Planctu Naturae, modeled on Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, concerns the conflict between sense and reason. Critic Ernst Robert Curtius explains it as follows: “Exactly as the motions of the planets run counter to the revolution of the firmament, so in man sense and reason are in conflict. This conflict is preordained in order that man may be tried and rewarded.” Alan describes Nature as an “intermediate power between God and man,” who “subordinates herself to God.” According to Alan, though, man distorts Nature through “perverted sexual love,” particularly homosexuality. The Anticlaudianus, a poem of over 4000 lines, is indebted to Bernardus Silvestris' Cosmographia. Written in classical hexameters, the work depicts Wisdom's journey to God at Nature's behest in order to obtain a Soul. The Soul is needed to complete the man Nature has formed. The poem describes the triumphant victory of that new man over an army of vices unleashed from Hell.

Critical Reception

During his lifetime Alan was known as doctoris universalis, celebrated for the breadth of his learning, the power of his preaching, and the flexibility of a poetic imagination which, according to J. R. O'Donnell—because of Alan's confidence in his Christian faith—was able to admit elements from pagan culture into his poetry. John of Garland wrote of him in 1252 as an “inspired bard,” who “enhanced the wealth of learning at Paris,” “tamed” heretics and was “greater than Virgil, more reliable than Homer.” His pupil Ralph of Longchamps, writing of his own commentary on Alan's Anticlaudianus notes that “the memory of [his] love and friendship often forces me to tears.” In the centuries following his death, Alan's works were reproduced and circulated in a number of manuscripts. In fact, his reputation was so great that many more works were attributed to him. Scholars now believe that many of these works were not actually written by him. Curtius regards Alan as “a poet with a prodigious power of expression; a speculative theologian who tapped fresh springs;” all in all “one of the most significant figures of the twelfth century.” C. S. Lewis, in his well-known study of medieval literature, The Allegory of Love, agrees that the Anticlaudianus is important from a “historical point of view” noting that “no one who has plodded doggedly through him will wholly regret the time he has spent.”

Principal Works

De Planctu Naturae [The Complaint of Nature] (poetry) c. 1160-80

Anticlaudianus de Antirufino [The Antithesis of Claudian's Against Rufinus] (poetry) c. 1181-84

De arte praedicatoria [also known as Ars Praedicandi, The Art of Preaching] (essay) not dated

De Fide Catholica contra Haereticos [On the Catholic Faith against Heretics] (essay) not dated

De Virtutibus et de Vitiis et de Donis Spiritus Sancti [On Virtues, Vices, and the Gifts of the Holy Spirit] (essay) not dated

Elucidatio in Cantica Canticorum [Elucidation of the Song of Songs] (essay) not dated

Expositio Prosae de Angelis [An Explanation of the Prosa on the Angels] (essay) not dated

Liber in distinctionibus Dictionum theologicalium [A Work on the Various Meaning of Theological Terms] (essay) not dated

Liber Parabolarum [The Book of Parables] (essay) not dated

Liber Poenitentialis [Work on the Sacrament of Penance] (essay) not dated

Regulae Theologicae [also known as Regulae Caelestis Iuris, The Rules of Theology] not dated

Rhythmus de Incarnatione [Poem on the Incarnation] (poetry) not dated

Sermo de Sphera intelligibili [Discourse on the Intelligible Circle] (essay) not dated

Summa Quoniam hominess [Since Men] (essay) not dated

Super symbolum apostolorum [Commentary on the Apostles' Creed] (essay) not dated

Tractatus magistri Alani [The Treatise of Master Alan] (essay) not dated

Tractatus Magistri Alani De virtutibus et vitiis [The Treatise of Master Alan on Virtues and Vices] (essay) not dated


C. S. Lewis (essay date 1958)

SOURCE: Lewis, C. S. “Allegory.” The Allegory of Love, pp. 98-109. New York: Oxford University Press: New York, 1958.

[In the following excerpt, Lewis analyses the Anticlaudianus as a secular rather than a religious work, noting that its importance lies in the influence it exerted on writers like Castiglione and Spenser.]

The Anticlaudianus1 of Alanus ab Insulis is a work in every respect inferior to the De Mundi Universitate, and may be described as nearly worthless except from the historical point of view. From that point of view it is important. It was written to be a kind of pendant to Claudian's In Rufinum. In that glorified lampoon Claudian had tried to give an original turn to the abuse of an enemy by a setting of the allegorical mythology which was congenial to his age. In the opening of his first book Allecto is introduced lamenting the return of the golden age, and the consequent diminution of her old empire, under Theodosius. An infernal council is summoned and Megaera carries the proposal of entrusting to her nursling Rufinus the championship of the cause of evil. Alanus reverses the idea and describes the creation of a perfect man by Natura as her champion against Allecto; and hence the title anti-Claudian. Since the perfect man, at the end of the poem, proves his mettle in combat against the vices, the poem may be described as a Psychomachia with a lengthy introduction; and Alanus, like Prudentius, probably believed himself to be composing an epic. The work is written throughout in hexameters and always couched in the same monotonous rhetoric. It is a principle with Alanus that whatever is worth saying once is worth saying several times. Thus ‘she thinks about the way to heaven’ becomes

She thinks, inquires, devises, seeks, elects
What way, or path, or road may guide her steps
To high heav'n and the Thunderer's secret throne.(2)

‘She bids them make a chariot’ becomes

She bids, commands, orders, enjoins, begs one
Of those in Wisdom's train, with hand and heart
And faith and zeal and sweat and toil to effect
The carriage into being of her carriage.(3)

But no quotation can do justice to the effect of the book as a whole. Those who have read it to the end—a small company—and those only, can understand how speedily amused contempt turns into contempt without amusement, and how even contempt at last settles into something not far removed from a rankling personal hatred of the author. Nor are the vices of the style redeemed, as their much more pardonable counterparts were redeemed in Bernardus, by any real profundity or freshness in the matter. Once or twice, when he is describing external nature, the author shows a trace of real feeling; once or twice, in moral passages, he attains a certain dignity; for the rest this book is one of the melancholy kind that claim our attention solely as influences and as examples of a tendency.

Natura, the story says, once resolved to sum up in a single crowning work all the goodness that lay scattered among her creatures. But her old anvil was worn away and the task beyond her powers. Therefore she called her sisters to council, in her secret place. Thither they came—Concord and Youth, Laughter who clears the clouds of the mind, and Reason who is the measure of good: Honesty, Prudence, Good Faith, and that Virtue par excellence (for she is called Virtus simply).

Who scatters wealth and pours her gifts abroad
Nor lets her treasure basely fust in ease.(4)

Last of all came Nobility. To these Natura opened her heart. In all her works she saw nothing that was wholly blessed. The old stain could not be removed; but still it might be possible to make one work which could redeem the whole, and be the mirror of themselves. In the meantime, they knew that her decrees were scorned by mortals and Tisiphone triumphed on the earth. To this the Virtues replied that such a project showed the divine wisdom of the speaker, but that among themselves there was no power to perform it. Let Prudence and Reason be dispatched to heaven to ask of God a soul for the perfect man. Prudence at first was coy (‘Fluctuat haec, se nolle negat nec velle fatetur’),5 but Concord overruled her. A chariot was built and to it they yoked the five horses whose names are Sight, Hearing, Smell, Taste, and Touch, and the two virtues ascended in it to heaven, passing as they went, the aerios cives quibus aer carcer.6 On the brow of the world they met Theology, who unyoked Hearing and setting Prudence on his back—for Reason could come no farther—conducted her to the throne of the Almighty; to whom she offered her prayer, representing the ill treatment which she and her sisters now suffered on earth, and rounding all off with the cogent argument

A neighbour's house on fire imperils thine.(7)

God then called Noys to bring him an exemplar out of her treasury and impressed its likeness with his seal upon the new soul which he gave to Prudence. She rejoined her sister Reason whom she found waiting at the celestial frontier, and the two returned together to the house of Natura. A perfect body was fashioned and united to the soul gumphis subtilibus,8 and the Virtues in turn endowed the man with their choicest gifts. Only Nobility could do nothing until he had visited his mother Fortune and secured her goodwill. Meanwhile Fame had carried as far as Hell the tidings of this new creation. Allecto summoned the infernal peers, whose deliberations were so effective that the new man was scarcely living before an army of vices was advancing to attack him. The whole concludes with the psychomachy, and the victory of the perfect man ushers in the golden age.

The importance of this work, whose literary merits I have already denied, is twofold. In the first place it conferred new prestige on the allegorical method, of which it was a specimen more attractive to that age than any of its predecessors. It was the last word in poetic style as style was then understood. It was longer and more encyclopaedic than the Psychomachia. It was a good deal easier and more popular than Bernardus. In the second place, it is significant by reason of its moral content: as a document of the ‘humanism’ of Chartres, as the celebration of a tertium quid between the courtly and the religious conceptions of the good life, it is perhaps more important than the De Mundi Universitate itself. For when we come to examine in detail the perfect man presented by Alanus, we find much that accords ill, by any strict standard, with the theological framework of the poem. The Virtues who are summoned to his making are purely secular virtues. If Fides appears, it is made clear that Fides means ‘good faith’—the virtue that keeps promises and plays fair in friendship—and not ‘Faith’ in the Christian sense.9 If Pietas appears, Pietas means ‘Pite’ and not piety.10 And among the virtues we find some whom a very moderate ascetism might exclude from that title altogether, such as Favor (popularity), Risus, and Decus;11 and others whom no philosophy can treat as virtues at all, such as Copia, Juventus, and Nobilitas.12 Again, in the psychomachy which concludes the whole we find among the army of the vices such unexpected champions as Pauperies, Infamia, and Senectus:13 characters very proper to be excluded from the garden of Amor—as ‘Poverte’ and ‘Elde’ are excluded in the Romance of the Rose—but very oddly included among ‘vices’ from the theologian's point of view. Is it not, then, apparent that Alanus is depicting not so much a perfect man by the standards of the Church as a ‘noble and virtuous gentleman’ according to the standards of chivalry? Is not Alanus, in fine, to be numbered less among the followers of Prudentius than among the predecessors of Castiglione, of Elyot, and of Spenser? We have already seen that he appropriates the common name of Virtus to the typically courtly virtue of Largesse; and the scene in which the Virtues adorn the new man puts the question beyond doubt. He is not complete without Nobilitas, though Nobilitas admittedly depends upon Fortuna.14Fides, in words later to be echoed by Guillaume de Lorris, recommends to him the choice of a confidant:

To whom he may entrust his complete self,
Lay bare his mind and speak his perfect will
Showing the secret places of the heart.(15)

—advice much more useful to a gentleman than to a saint. Ratio, in direct defiance of the gospel teaching, recommends to him moderation, not abstinence, as regards the desire for fame:

Not swayed with popular applause, nor yet
Spitting it out, unless it bear the stamp
Of flattery and would purchase wealth for words;
It smacks too much of sour austerity
To scorn all fame.(16)

Modestia, who turns out to be none other than the old Hellenic and Provençal virtue of mesura, actually gives him lessons in deportment, and even in hairdressing:

Let not the hair, too wanton-fine, appear
Like woman's bravery and belie the man.
Nor too unkempt, lacking its due regard,
Lest that proclaim thee by its tangled shock
In thy fresh years too philosophical.(17)

We do wrong to laugh at such a passage. Once we have decided to describe, not the perfect man, but the perfect gentleman, we cannot stop short of these externals, which are, as a matter of fact, included in the character: a really exhaustive treatise on music must range from aesthetic philosophy to methods of fingering, and the same defence holds good for...

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Linda E. Marshall (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Marshall, Linda E. “The Identity of the “New Man” in the Anticlaudianus of Alan of Lille.” Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies 10 (1979): 77-94.

[In the following essay, Marshall identifies the “new man” of Alan's Anticlaudianus as Philip Augustus of France, characterizing the poem as a prophetic allegory of the spiritual and political triumph of France over the royal English line of the Plantagenets.]

The full title of Alan of Lille's most renowned work, the Anticlaudianus de Antirufino, indicates that this epic poem was meant to reverse the topic of Claudian's Against Rufinus: while Claudian dealt with the totally...

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John M. Trout (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Trout, John M. “Alan and the Social Orders.” In The Voyage of Prudence: The World View of Alan of Lille, pp. 151-69. Washington D. C.: University Press of America, 1979.

[In the following essay, Trout examines Alan's writings and sermons in order to construct a picture of his views of social classes and professions.]

Master Alan lived in a feudal society. He was a contemporary of Bertrand de Born, Chrétien de Troyes, and Richard the Lion Hearted. Knights visited his classroom for instruction in chivalry.1 We know that Alan's thought was not entirely taken up with Platonic form. In his Liber poenitentialis, Summa de arte...

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M. N. K. Mander (essay date 1979)

SOURCE: Mander, M. N. K. “Grammatical Analogy in Langland and Alan of Lille.” In Notes and Queries 26, no. 6 (December 1979): 501-04.

[In the following essay, Mander argues that Langland's use of grammar as a metaphorical representation of divine order in Piers Plowman finds precedent in Alan's representation of grammar in The Complaint of Nature.]

In his article on the grammatical metaphor for mede and mercede in Piers Plowman (C text Passus IV, 335-409), A. V. C. Schmidt1 shows its general resemblance to a passage in an early work of John Wycliffe. Having described this resemblance, he concludes “the differences also need...

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M. L. Fuehrer (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Fuehrer, M. L. “The Cosmological Implications of the Psychomachia in Alan of Lille's Anticlaudianus.” Studies in Philology LXXVII, no. 4 (fall 1980): 344-53.

[In the following essay, Fuehrer justifies the concluding psychomachia, or spiritual battle, in Alan's Anticlaudianus by interpreting it as an action that unites earth and heaven by means of virtue's opposition to vice.]

The “psychomachia” with which Alan of Lille closes his Anticlaudianus presents a distinct crux for those who would explicate the work as a whole. Although an analysis of the entire poem is beyond the scope of one paper, insight into the intention of the...

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Jan Ziolkowski (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: Ziolkowski, Jan. “Grammar in the World of Alan's Metaphors.” In Alan of Lille's Grammar of Sex: The Meaning of Grammar to A Twelfth-Century Intellectual, pp. 13-49. Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 1985.

[In the following essay, Ziolkowski discusses Alan's allegorical use of the rules of grammar and grammatical terminology to represent man's impropriety in nature, concepts, and actions.]


In the brief metric section which opens Alan of Lille's De planctu Naturae and previews the action to come, the narrator laments the disobedience of humanity to natural law in general and to...

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Larry Scanlon (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Scanlon, Larry. “Unspeakable Pleasures: Alain de Lille, Sexual Regulation and the Priesthood of Genius.” The Romantic Review 86, no. 2 (March 1995): 213-42.

[In the following essay, Scanlon examines the use of the figure Genius in Alan's Complaint of Nature, contending that Alan uses this character to initiate a discussion regarding sexuality and discursive structures in his narrative.]


With the appearance of Alain de Lille's De planctu Naturae sometime between 1160 and 1180, the figure Genius became a priest.2 Originally a Roman tutelary god, he had already...

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Willemien Otten (essay date 1995)

SOURCE: Otten, Willemien. “Nature and Scripture: Demise of a Medieval Analogy—Exegetical Nature-Poetry in Alan of Lille.” Harvard Theological Review 88, no. 2 (1995): 277-82.

[In the following excerpt, Otten argues that, in The Complaint of Nature, Alan endows Nature with the ability and authority to approach a knowledge of God which had hitherto only been granted to Scripture.]

Soon after Thierry [of Chartres' comparative exegeses of the accounts of the creation in Plato's Timaeus and in Genesis], comparisons between the [Platonic] World Soul and the [Christian] Holy Spirit were no longer deemed appropriate. While the World Soul controversy...

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Hugh White (essay date 2000)

SOURCE: White, Hugh. “Natura Vicaria Dei” and “The Roman de la Rose.” In Nature, Sex, and Goodness in a Medieval Literary Tradition, pp. 84-101, 120-28, 132-36. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

[In the following excerpt, White contrasts the sexual aspects and attitudes towards Nature in De Planctu Naturae and the Anticlaudianus, as well as examines the influence of Nature as Alan depicts her in De Planctu on Jean de Meun's characterization and conception of Nature in the Roman de la Rose.]


The Cosmographia [a Neoplatonic allegory describing the origins of...

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Further Reading


Alford, John A. “The Grammatical Metaphor: A Survey of Its Use in the Middle Ages.” Speculum 57, no. 4 (October 1982): 728-60.

Surveys the metaphorical use of grammatical terms and relations in the thought, rhetoric, and literature of the middle ages.

Chenu, M.-D. Nature, Man, and Society in the Twelfth Century: Essays on New Theological Perspectives in the Latin West, selected, edited, and translated by Jerome Taylor and Lester K. Little. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957, 361 p.

Rich in references to Alan, his work and thought, this work examines the twelfth-century context of religious,...

(The entire section is 672 words.)